The following is a conversation between Yancey Strickler, Co-Founder and former CEO of Kickstarter, Author of This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for A More Generous World, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: Kickstarter is one of the most extraordinary business success stories of the past decade, but from when it was founded in 2009, the values of generating profit and growing fast were not the only ones they lived by. There were other equally important values, and those other considerations and that mindset have come together in a new book written by Yancey Strickler, the Co-Founder and former CEO of Kickstarter. It’s called This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for A More Generous World, and he is here with us tonight to discuss it.
Good evening, Yancey, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Yancey: Thanks so much for having me.
Denver: You know, I believe that just about everyone listening has heard of Kickstarter, but I’m a little less certain that they know what it is. So, what is Kickstarter?
Yancey: Yes, absolutely. Well, Kickstarter is the platform that pioneered crowdfunding. So the idea of lots of people putting small amounts of money together to achieve a collective aim, that was something that really entered the mainstream through Kickstarter.
What’s distinct about Kickstarter as a platform is its focus just on creative projects. So, its people making movies, making records, writing books, opening restaurants, doing entrepreneurial things. There’s nothing charitable or like explicitly businessy. You’re not paying your payroll through Kickstarter. But over the past 10 years, it’s helped independent creative people around the world raise $4.5 billion and bring 150,000 new creative projects to life.
Denver: Who knew? Unreal.
Yancey: No kidding.
Denver: Well, you’ve always been known – Kickstarter has been – for their moral compass, not being myopic about profit and growth. In fact, you became a public benefit corporation. How did your experience as a CEO shape your view of the business world?
Yancey: Well, for the three of us who started Kickstarter – Perry Chen who first had the idea; Charles Adler, and myself – we were accidental business people. There was no intention. Perry had this great idea that he shared with Charles and I, and we were all compelled by it. And then we realized to make this idea real, it seems like that means starting a company, seems like that means starting a website, and it’s like: How do you eat an elephant one bite at a time? It’s like each little piece we were learning as we were going. But that was hard. That causes you to make a lot of mistakes maybe a more experienced person wouldn’t make, but it also allows you to question a lot of standard practices and just say, “Are we sure this makes sense for us? Does this feel right to us?” So, we were sort of unindoctrinated.
And also the three of us, we all came from music backgrounds and sort of our cultural backgrounds had instilled in us an idea of: Don’t sell out. What matters is doing the right thing. It’s about the long-term, not the short-term. What’s meaningful is like standing up for your beliefs. We just always saw eye-to-eye on that from Day one and just knew that if this were to be successful, it could only be successful in one way.
I think it’s almost like a retro causation of like — over time, did we learn what we were doing, right? You know you’re just sort of following what feels real, and then eventually we learned about the public benefit corporation status that had been made newly legal at that point. It’s like, “Oh that’s what we are. That’s why we haven’t fit into any boxes up until this point.” But it wasn’t that strategic; it was more… it was the only way we knew how to do it.
Denver: Did you ever feel like a fish out of water? Because the ethos of internet start-ups then – Silicon Valley, masters of the universe – that’s who the media was gushing over. You didn’t really fit into that world, did you?
Yancey: Yes. The only time I felt in water was like being in our office or being around creative people, being around artists, that people use the platform. But the outside world, no. I always carried a lot of anxiety of: What if everybody else is right and we’re the ones who are wrong?
Denver: That’s interesting.
Yancey: How could I be sure? How could I be sure that we’re the right ones? Because there were things in the past that we thought we were right about that we weren’t. We discovered that we were wrong. So I really struggled with a lot of imposter syndrome. Once you write about it, it stops being embarrassing somehow. But it was an embarrassing moment for me. I was standing in line at a grocery store while I was CEO, and as a CEO, you’re always worrying about everything, and I look at this rack of magazines next to me and there’s a Harvard Business Review with the cover that says: “Go to war for talent; Be paranoid; The new rules of competition”; it’s this hyper-aggressive thing. And I looked at it, and it just struck this deep chord of fear in me, and I immediately thought, “Oh man! Maybe my problem is I’m not paranoid enough!” and I ended up buying this magazine.
Denver: Yes. Copies for everybody.
Yancey: I’m like the co-founder and CEO of a famous company, and I’m fear-buying a magazine at a grocery store because of the feelings it creates in me. So I was very susceptible to those things. That was a struggle, but now I see that it is a good thing because it allowed me to always kind of reset the compass of where we stood versus everyone else, being aware of that gap between how we saw things and how others tend to see things and trying to translate that. We didn’t want to be seen as altruistic or charitable or anything like that. We’re like, “No. We want to succeed like anyone wants to succeed, but we just have a different idea of what that means.”
Denver: Which is balance, some balance in this whole thing. Well, there’s more I want to talk to you about with Kickstarter, and I hope we get back to it later, but I really want to talk about this book because I’m so excited about it.
Often, when somebody sets out to write a book, there’s a pivotal moment that captures the essence of what they want to say. Did you experience such a crystallizing moment that brought it all together, and the idea of this book originated?
Yancey: Yes. I had to stumble across it just like anyone does in any interesting idea. But I was living on the Lower East Side in New York – I lived in the Lower East Side for 18 years – and I was watching the neighborhood change from gentrification, and there was just a moment when Mars Bar– which is a punk dive bar created in the ‘80s– has been here for multiple decades, in 2013, it got torn down at the corner of Second Avenue and First Street. It got torn down and replaced by a TD Bank.
What was wild was that there were already four TD Banks within a 15-minute walk of that same corner. As someone who lived in the neighborhood, I was just like, “What in the world? Is there some virus infecting storefronts overnight that’s just changing, turning them into cell phone stores and Duane Reades and TD Banks?”
Denver: Just ripping the soul out of the neighborhood.
Yancey: Yes. So it was just so unmissable, and I started researching this and discovered that the number of bank branches in the city had increased hundreds, almost a thousand over the previous 10 years.
Denver: Against what everybody else thought, that they would disappear.
Yancey: And this is a post-financial crisis. This is happening. It just daunted me that in every one of those locations, there have been something like Mars Bar, a business run by New Yorkers for their fellow New Yorkers. I remember just like really thinking about that and at the same time, I came across this study by – it’s called the Kauffman Institute that studies entrepreneurship. I think it’s out of Stanford. They did a study of entrepreneurship rates in America over the previous 40 years. And the same year they put out these findings that showed that from 1977 to 2014, the entrepreneurship rate in America dropped in half per capita. This is the same time every magazine is telling you everyone has a start-up. Kickstarter is like the perfect embodiment of this, but yet it’s not true. And that decline in entrepreneurship rates, that is the same decline as the decline in smoking rates from the 1970s to today.
Denver: That brings it home.
Yancey: Yes. So think about how many more people used to smoke? That’s how many more people used to be entrepreneurs, but now they’re blocked by these larger forces, and so I just kept trying to understand what was happening and what were these larger forces. So I ended up – I had to give a big talk at a big event; not that long after, a member of my team, Julie Wood, challenged me to like “Don’t just sell Kickstarter,” like “Do something!”
Denver: Knock it out of the park!
Yancey: And Thank God, she did.
Denver: This was over in Ireland, right?
Yancey: Yes, it was in Dublin. And so I talked about Mars Bar. I connected it to why there were so many movie sequels. I connected it to the fact that every Top 10 Single was written by one of two balding Scandinavian men, why Taylor Swift is on the cover of every magazine. And what I said was the reason behind this was a belief in financial maximization, which I defined as — the belief that the rational choice and every decision is whichever option makes the most money. I said this was the hidden default setting that was just guiding every one of our choices, and to me that’s the only way it makes sense that you have five of the same bank within two square miles, but you’re lacking all sorts of other businesses at the same time.
Denver: It’s why “Oklahoma” is on Broadway right now, and “West Side Story” is comin’!
Yancey: Yes, exactly.
Denver: No risk; just maximize.
Yancey: Exactly. Eventually once the goal became financial maximization, all of these organizations, these institutions just came to this realization that’s a lot safer to just trot out the same things over and over than it is to try to do something new. And so that’s how you end up with a more homogeneous world. That’s how you end up with chains everywhere. And that’s how you’ll end up with… what feels like a very limited sort of future that we can work towards.
Yancey: We have a hard time imagining anything different than where we are now.
Denver: Yes, and it would seem that every other kind of decision you would make other than that is emotional, is irrational.
Denver: Do you find that financial maximization has been around from the dawn of time? Or is this a more recent phenomenon, maybe the Milton Friedman shareholder wealth article?
Yancey: Right. Certainly capitalism lays the groundwork for it, but I see capitalism as being distinct from what we’re going through now. I think financial maximization is like a fundamentalist wing of capitalism that I think emerged in 1970, and it happened with the Milton Friedman essay in the New York Times arguing that “the only social responsibility” – a phrase Friedman puts in sceptical quote marks 27 times in his essay – the only social responsibility a business has is to make as much money for its shareholders as possible.
So up until that point, in the 1950s and ‘60s – this is the Golden Age of capitalism, the explosion of the middle class in America – what was happening then was that capitalism was competing with communism to see which would be the dominant social ordering structure of our globe, and they were competing to see which system could produce the biggest middle class.
Denver: I remember that.
Yancey: Which one could bring the most people up to just a place of stability, of security? So the US, being focused on the goal of growing the middle class, produced amazing returns, and everyone played by the same rules; businesses retained employees, retrained them – everyone was on their best behavior. And then capitalism started to rout communism, and since then, the idea that the goal of financial wealth is to create broad economic security is gone. Instead, the ideas, the goal is to just grow as big a pile as money as possible. And that if we do that, that somehow, everything else will just work out because – I don’t know – rich people will give it away to charity and whatever. Just don’t worry about that part, and once we get enough money, it will all work itself out. But we’re five decades into that strategy, and it has yet to work. Five decades.
Denver: So, you have this idea. You give a speech at the Web Summit over in Dublin. You take the transcript; you post it online. Hey, you get a pretty good reaction, and then near the end of 2017, you decide to step down as CEO of Kickstarter and probably said to yourself, “What comes next?”
Denver: So you go through a process — I would presume — to make that determination. Tell us a little bit about that process and how This Could Be Our Future ended up at the top of the heap.
Yancey: Yes. I didn’t know what that process would be, and I was expecting my first day not being a CEO, that I would just like sleep for 72 straight hours.
Denver: Sounds good to me.
Yancey: Instead I woke up with more energy than I could ever remember having had before, and what I realized was that being a leader of an organization that size and doing it for so long, it wore me down having to always think in terms of the organization, think in terms of the brand, think in terms of the community, never acting on my own desires, filtering everything through an increasingly nebulous…idea….
Denver: Yes, like a derivative or something.
Yancey: Yes, and so suddenly I woke up and I’m like, “Oh I got to hustle for me!” And that sounds fun! That’s interesting. So yes, I wasn’t sure what to do, and I had this realization that as a CEO, I’ve done corporate planning for years; you do quarterly plans, what projects you’re going to do, what your goals are, and I thought “Well maybe I should try to treat myself like I’m a PBC, I’m Yancey PBC, and so I spent a week applying corporate brainstorming and framework tools to myself. I did a SWOT analysis on myself. I did these values exercises, things I’d read in books like The Five Dysfunctions of the Team, things like that. I acted like I was “the team.”
Denver: You’re the team.
Yancey: It weirdly worked, like I jarred loose a lot of stuff I probably wouldn’t have thought of, and at the end, I had like five things I could imagine doing, five different paths.
Denver: Give us a couple of those.
Yancey: They were to be a freelance journalist as I had been before Kickstarter. They had been to be a teacher. It was to write a book. It was to try to develop a TV series about music. I used to be in the music world. And the last one, I wanted to challenge myself to think of a job that would have no public facing thing whatsoever. Like what if this is just all ego, this is just all an exercise in ego? So I was like “What could I do If no one would know I was doing it?” That was also an idea, and so I decided to kind of mirror my initial process; so the next week I devoted a day each week where I woke up and I pretended that that was my job.
Denver: Oh that’s really interesting.
Yancey: So I was a freelance journalist. So I spent the day coming up with story ideas writing pitches, imagining what I would do, and the whole day I had to do it. I tried not to think about what I was doing, I was just doing it and then just allowing my body to tell me if I liked it or not.
Denver: The body is the best barometer. People have told me about jobs, and they rationalize it, but jobs that create energy are the ones you should seek because your body can’t lie to you.
Denver: So your head can lie to you really well.
Yancey: It’s very good at it.
Denver: So you were looking to feel it, as opposed to think about it.
Yancey: Yes. It was like I was putting on and I was like method acting my way into this. And when I did the book it was like, “What should I write about? What would I do? Could I do it?” My body was tingling. I just knew that it was the thing to do. And then I also tried to follow a similar process of “I need friction. I need to force myself to do things.” So I gave myself these really hard deadlines. “Okay, if I’m going to write a book, then I must have a proposal done by this date. I must have the contract by this date, and I told myself if I fail to meet these things …then like I’m not going to do this, and that created just an urgency, and that went to the extent that I gave myself only a year to write the book because I thought this book needs to kick my ass for me to do a good job. And all of those things ended up being really powerful because they created a drive that got the best out of me.
When this started, I had no idea where it was going to lead. But I feel like this process was built on acknowledging my weakness as a human being, my fallibilities as a human being, the ways we trick ourselves.
Denver: You don’t have to tell me about that.
Yancey: Yes. So, how do I balance that out? How do I look at myself with compassion and give it the tools to find what the right answer is? And yes, it worked phenomenally.
Denver: Well, you know that’s a real gift to have that kind of self-awareness. And even when I’ve hired people in the past, I’ve always looked at: Are they self-aware? And when you are self-aware, you can get to places and achieve things that you otherwise couldn’t because we have this cloud… or worse, we fool ourselves.
Well, in this book, what you wanted to do is to redefine and expand our understanding of values, beyond financial maximization, and that is not an easy thing to do. So what you’ve done, you’ve provided us with the device, and that’s the Japanese Bento Box, and you’ve coined a term called Bentoism; explain both of them to us.
Yancey: So during the process of writing the book, I had a real Eureka moment one day. I had drawn on a piece of paper a hockey stick graph. This is in tech and businesses the ultimate… it’s like the crucifix of business. It’s a line sloping up into the right, whatever it is… you’re growing money, sales, fame. It’s growing so fast the line just goes straight up. And as I was looking at this, it suddenly occurred to me that this was just a small piece of the picture because the x-axis on the bottom measuring time, it goes from now all the way into the future. It goes far beyond where that hockey stick graph is, and the y-axis measuring your self -interest, it also keeps going up because as our self-interest grows, it goes from me to us. Our responsibility increases; the difference between being a solo entrepreneur and having an organization is enormous. And so when I saw this, I suddenly looked at all this blank space that I’d never considered before. I was like, what is that?
Denver: What’s it doing there?
Yancey: So, I sort of like demarcated out, made little boxes to show there were different spaces there. And as I looked at this graph, I thought: what did I just draw? And I just wrote down a description next to it. I wrote: this is Beyond Near-Term Orientation, and as I looked at that phrase, I realized it was an acronym that said BENTO. And I said, “Oh this is a Bento Box” because the Bento Box, it comes from a Japanese word meaning convenience, and the brilliance of a Bento Box is that it has four compartments and a lid, which means you can carry a balanced variety of dishes in it without them getting spoiled.
A Bento ensures you don’t eat too much of any one thing. It’s always a balance of things, and the Bento also honors the Japanese dieting philosophy of hara hachi bu, which says the goal of a meal is to be 80% full; that way you’re still hungry for tomorrow. So I thought I’ve made a Bento, but for self-interest, for our values, and so the Bento of self-interest shows that the place where the hockey stick graph lives, that’s our now me space — what I want to need right now.
Denver: That would be the lower left hand corner.
Bentoism is meant to create a framework for expanding how we think of self-interest, and I also believe that in each one of those Bento spaces, there are also other values that natively live and rule that we should think about when making choices there.
Yancey: The bottom left corner of the Bento. The bottom right corner of the Bento, that’s future me. That’s thinking about the greyed, wrinkled, wise version of yourself that made all the right choices, that lived up to its commitments, that lived the obituary you wished you could have.
Denver: Yes, the person I said I was going to be.
Yancey: Yes, absolutely. There’s also in the top left…there is now us — the people that you rely on and that rely on you — your family, your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers. And finally, in the top right, there’s future us — your children and everybody else’s children too. So every decision we make impacts all these spaces – now me, future me, now us, and future us — and every one of those spaces influences every choice that we make. But today we are blind to all of them except for now me.
Denver: Now me, that’s it.
Yancey: We struggle to perceive any of those other spaces. As you said before, we see now me as rational and real, and those other spaces as emotional and unreal, somehow less real. So Bentoism is meant to create a framework for expanding how we think of self-interest, and I also believe that in each one of those Bentos spaces, there are also other values that natively live and rule that we should think about when making choices there. So financial maximization rules the space of now me because financial security is important in a Maslow’s hierarchy kind of way.
Denver: Until the other three …unless you get that one taken care of, I’ve got to be able to live and eat and have a house.
Yancey: Absolutely, I’m not the least bit anti-money. I just see it as a tool to get to higher values.
Denver: Yes. Well, let’s make this more real and talk about your own Bento Box. I think you keep it on your home screen of your phone. Tell us about your Bento Box and seeing: what do you have in those four corners?
Yancey: So I first created this framework, and then I just started playing with it myself and trying to think about it. And so I end up writing just a simple question in each Bento for me to answer – “What does now me need?” So I try to think about this very selfish part of me, and I just list down all the things that I care about. The first time I did it, my now me needs good health. I want good habits, I want money in the bank, I want to feel loved — things like that.
Denver: The basketball team to win.
Yancey: Right. Yes, exactly. It’s selfish. It doesn’t have to be virtuous. Other spaces can be virtuous. Right? Like that’s part of it too because we all carry different voices. So I end up doing that, and it eventually came down to putting little slogans in each Bento. So my slogans are – in now me, “When I am at my best, I am showing people the matrix.” It’s what I wrote. I am helping people to see the world. I am fortunate to be able to get paid for that that brings me financial security and like my soul is alive when I can do that. My future me, my values, the old version of myself, what that person tells me matters — is that: I create harmony, that I bring disparate things together and make them harmonious, that is a skill that I have and also that I don’t sell out, that I stay true to my values, that I don’t cash in something that matters to me for something that’s less important.
My now us which is about my relationships to other people that’s about deep time, deep time, focus time. As I went through what was at the center of my relationships, I realized why I’m such a bad friend at texting, but why I’m so great at spending a weekend together; I’m about really deep profound time, and if you give me that with a good friend three times a year, like we’re great.
Denver: That said, I’d say that like going to these reunions with 80 people, you can skip; but give me some really good time, quality time — that is great stuff.
Yancey: And finally, my future us — the future I’m working towards, it’s to build a better matrix. I’m not imagining a world where there are no hidden defaults, but it’s just how do we incrementally improve that to where we’re being guided to make choices that truly benefit us? So, this Bento is a roadmap for self-coherence for me. For me to make choices, I consult this and think about what lives up to my values. So, if I could give an example.
Denver: Yes, was going to ask you. You and your wife have been using this for about a year now.
Denver: Share with us an example of how this works in practice.
Yancey: So probably the juiciest example would be that I…
Denver: I could use some juice. It’s a radio show, let’s go!
Yancey: Not that juicy. You know one of the ways that I make a living is giving talks, right? You give talks to organizations, and I get asked to give talks sometimes by companies that I’m not a huge fan of… financial services companies, things like that. And in the past I’ve always said “no” to those things because I’m the don’t-sell-out guy, and I felt that instinctively.
Denver: Box number 2.
Yancey: Box number 2, and when people would ask me to speak at these things, I would get angry. It was like my insides would be torn up. And so soon after creating the Bento, I got invited to do another one of those kinds of things, and before saying “no,” I thought… actually my wife told me, “You should ask your Bento; see what it says.” Great idea. Let’s do it. I asked my Bento. So the way you ask your Bento a question is to sort of isolate each voice and just answer it from its perspective. So I asked my now me voice – “Should I do a talk for a company I don’t like?” My now me wants me to show people the matrix, it says “Yeah, absolutely.” My now us is about deep time focus – “Should I do a talk for company I don’t like?” “Yeah that probably seems you probably are creating deep time with some people.” The future us which wants me to build a better matrix says “Absolutely, you should!” These people have such influence. This is exactly who needs to build that better matrix. But then there is still that future me voice that said, “Don’t sell out,” that said, “No.” It said, “Are you sure you’re not just in this for the money?”
Denver: So, it’s 3 to 1 right now.
Yancey: It was 3 to 1, but I saw that, I suddenly had this insight that this future me voice that said “Don’t sell out” — it was like a bouncer standing outside, and it was protecting me; it was keeping things out. But I also had the right to tap that bouncer on the shoulder and say, “It’s okay, I got this. I can handle this one.”
Denver: Let this guy in.
Yancey: Let this guy in. And what that made me feel is that these conflicting feelings… I could put them in more order, and they were all empowered, and I was empowered to make a choice while thinking and looking at all of them.
Yancey: If you think about the Pixar movie Inside Out and these different voices inside of us. I imagine where an organized way that you can listen to all of them, and then you can make a decision, and everyone can agree, and you just move forward; and that’s what it felt like. So I end up giving that talk, which I never would have done otherwise. And bizarrely I go and I find out the company’s all about wanting to change the kinds of things I’m talking about. So shame on me for being so cynical. But yes, the phrase that keeps coming to mind is “self-coherence” because I feel like the modern world forces a lot of self-compromise. We all wear so many different hats, doing one thing for one hat means doing something weird for another part of yourself. So what would it mean to try to bring those things more in line?
Denver: And that’s what the Bento Box does. I mean, you are not delegating your life to the Bento Box.
Yancey: No, no.
Denver: All the Bento Box is doing is helping a conversation inside of you and giving you clarity as to the things that you need to base its decision on, and then you ultimately take that guidance and make your own decision.
Yancey: Nor does the Bento enforce any political values, anything whatsoever. It’s simply making you aware of what is inside of you.
Denver: Beyond you, you give a great example in the book of Adele and how she’s used this concept to sell her tickets. Tell us about that.
Yancey: Adele, one of the most popular pop stars in the world, in 2014 she’s going on tour for the first time in years. And when Adele goes on tour, her tickets immediately sell out, and they go on secondary ticketing websites and get sold for much, much more. So, normally an Adele ticket is about $50 bucks because she prices her tickets low, but you have to buy one for hundreds or thousands of dollars. Adele realized this meant that she was either playing shows for wealthy fans, or she’s playing shows for people who are spending more money than they could probably afford to see her play, and this like rubbed her wrong.
So she found a start-up in the UK called Songkick that had developed an algorithm that would measure how loyal fans were to an artist. So they would analyze social data, listening data, whatever they could find, and they would identify here’s the top 20,000 fans of you in a given market, and Adele used this algorithm to then invite those people to buy tickets, putting no restrictions on whether they could resell the tickets, but the bet being that if we sold tickets to the right people, they won’t resell them, and the best fans will get to go for a fair price.
And so for these shows, less than 2% of those tickets got scalped versus 10 to 20 times for that for other shows.
And so Adele conducted a world tour… up until recently the biggest world tour in history, that was optimizing not just for her own financial return, but for the now us value of fairness and community. Every one of these rooms, she’s creating a co-created space by everyone who paid the same ticket price, who are there for the same reasons, and she did this not for altruism, not out of a pure heart — she was trying to create an experience, and she used an algorithm to do it. It’s replicable. It’s a mathematical formula to create this.
And to me, this is a very exciting example and also a strange one, if you really think about it, but an exciting example of new values to orient our decisions around, and to do so in a way that’s not about being woke or having the right values, but it’s just simply about there’s an outcome that we would like to have. Is there a way that we can create it? So I feel like once when you can get values to that sort of place, they become really powerful.
Yancey: Because otherwise you’re trying to convince someone with a moral argument, and that’s tough.
Denver: It doesn’t go anywhere.
Yancey: It doesn’t go very well.
Denver: I think we have found this — that is, really the heart of society right now. I’ve never known that much about Kickstarter, but I have always known a few things about you, and I want to go back to those days a little bit. And one of the things I’ve always known about you is that you were known as a great problem solver, and so much of leadership is being good at solving problems. How do you approach problems? Do you have a mental checklist? What makes you so good at getting to the core of the issue and deciding what needs to be done?
Yancey: Man, yeah. Wow, I think I read all the time, and so I feel like I’m constantly…
Denver: What are you reading now?
Yancey: I’m reading an amazing book right now. Right now, I’m reading a book called Time Loops. This is why I said retro-causation earlier. Time Loops is an amazing book by a physicist making the case for the ways that the future impacts the past, and I am convinced that parts of our brains and parts of all the molecules around us live in the future, in that time is not linear. And so it’s an argument by a physicist explaining this, and it’s tremendous.
Denver: It’s the way you look at things, and you’re always looking to change the framework, and that’s a wonderful way to do it.
Yancey: Absolutely. So I’m just always reading. Since I was a kid, that’s the thing I’ve most loved to do. And I think the other way… I think a lot through metaphors. I’ll just think about how other people approach things, and I will try to apply those ideas to different contexts. Just one silly example, but when I started writing the book, I was immediately hit with a wave of imposter syndrome. I remember lying on the couch complaining to my wife about how I can’t do it, I can’t do it! Who am I to write this book? And my wife just lovingly snaps at me and says, “Whatever it is you have to do, this isn’t working for you and it’s not going to work.”
Denver: Wives are good at that, aren’t they?
Yancey: And I could feel how true that was, and I had this immediate flash of this great Beatle story I’ve always loved, which is that in 1966, the year The Beatles released Rubber Soul, wrote, recorded and released Revolver, and wrote and recorded Sgt. Pepper’s.
Denver: Those were great years.
Yancey: It was also the first year in which The Beatles took vacations on their own. And for Paul’s vacation, he spent a month driving across France and Spain by himself. But of course, he didn’t want Beatlemania, and so he decided to go in disguise. He used Vaseline to slick back the mop top; he wore glasses, and he grew a mustache. And so for that month, Paul was not recognized. It was this transcendent experience for him. And when he got back to London, he called the other Beatles; he told them about it, and he said, “We can’t make another Beatles record. It’s going to be too hard. We all need the freedom of being somebody else,” and this was the idea for Sgt. Pepper’s — we couldn’t be Beatles anymore; we need that freedom. And so when my wife said, “Whatever you have to do, you have to do something.” My immediate thought was: I have to grow a mustache. So, I did. I grew a mustache that I would look at in the mirror, and I wouldn’t see good guy Yancey who worried about everything. I would see somebody who didn’t care what anybody thought.
Denver: Yes, maybe a writer even.
Yancey: Yes, maybe a writer even, and so again it’s treating myself with love by acknowledging my weakness, but I needed a reminder so prominent that it was growing in the middle of my face to keep me from falling back into the same story that I was telling myself. So I feel like a lot of the problem, a lot of it is just trying to learn as much as possible and just getting insights into how other people have cracked things, and I just have an infinite curiosity. I’m very patient. I don’t assume the first answer is the right answer. I’m willing to really grind on something. I like that.
Denver: Yes, the best question to ask people sometimes is: “What else?” Because sometimes that first answer is never the answer, and it’s usually about the time you get to the third “What else?” that you begin to get to the core of what’s really at work there. You were a music critic. So you must have really appreciated just a proliferation of what the Beatles did. I mean they were turning out records, albums, one every six months or something. That’s incredible.
Yancey: The Beatles, single every three months and an album every six months.
Denver: That’s unreal.
Yancey: They were highly structured.
Denver: And you’re trying to get one lousy book.
Yancey: I know! It’s true.
Denver: You were the CEO of Kickstarter, I guess from 2014 to 2017, and that may have been sort of the professionalization of the organization.
Denver: It went from 55 to 170.
Denver: Systems have to be put in place, and you had to hire a lot of people.
Denver: Tell us how you go about hiring. I’m sure you had a lot of successes. I’m sure you made a lot of mistakes. What’s your theory on hiring good people, not just for the organization, but also for them?
Yancey: Yes, it’s true. I feel like that was 99% of my job was hiring people.
Denver: How do you get the right people then?
Yancey: Well, one interesting thing, being in the tech space, people want to work in tech because they want the financial upside of like “Hey, you’re the guy that gets the Google stock in 1999, and now you’re absurdly wealthy.” But Kickstarter, we had said that we didn’t want to go for that kind of outcome. We didn’t want to sell the company. We didn’t want to IPO. The idea was to be just a good business for the long term. You pay out a dividend every year; the company does well… profit sharing, that kind of idea. And so one thing that I always did is I would lead off with meeting candidates with talking about that… like you’re not you’re not going to get rich in this job. If we do well, it’s going to be like we co-wrote a hit song together in the ‘80s. We get a check for whatever a few grand every year, but that’s it. That’s the financial upside.
The other upside though is meaning. The other upside is that the nine hours that you’re not with your family, you’re actually doing something that matters, and you’re going to feel it in your bones every day. So that was an initial filter. The other thing I would do is… especially with hiring executives, I treated those as every meeting was a date, and my goal for the day was to make them want me. I would still reserve judgment until the end like you always want to make someone else want the job, but ultimately you still have the power to decide who is the right person. But just trying to always keep people engaged even as I’m like trying to figure things out, trying to keep that inside my own head. And then the other thing I would say is that there were a handful of people internally that I always trusted their opinion on people.
Denver: That’s good.
Yancey: And a lot of what you’re looking for is this someone that thinks they’re better than someone else. Is this someone that’s willing to do the hard work? Is this someone that has self-awareness? I’m a big basketball fan, and the coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Gregg Popovich… maybe the greatest coach in all sports, the rule to play…
Denver: He sure gets a lot out of his players, doesn’t he?
Yancey: To play for the San Antonio Spurs, rule #1 is you must get over yourself. You have to get over yourself. And so you’re just trying to sniff those things out. You hire for talent; you hire for willingness to work. I got more right than wrong.
…it was leading with a heart. It was always being open. Not being afraid to show vulnerability, not bringing the company into my whatever personal imposter syndrome challenges might be. Everyone’s an adult; we can handle this.
Denver: How do you bring it all together in building a culture then?
Yancey: I think for me it was leading with a heart. It was always being open. Not being afraid to show vulnerability, not bringing the company into my whatever personal imposter syndrome challenges might be. Everyone’s an adult; we can handle this. If you talk to people that way, you can handle it, and then it’s just trying to create a culture of meaning where you need to maintain urgency; you need to maintain fire; you can’t ever feel like we’re good, and that gets harder the longer you go. I think we’re seeing that even in America’s institutions at this point, like the founding of an institution organization is a play of a time of amazing potential and energy, and everyone’s giving everything, but that decays over time.
Denver: It does.
Yancey: It does, and you need turnover of people. You need people to come in and believe in the mission, and I come to think that it might be that maybe we all have like 5 to 7 years of like pure energy effort that we can give before we either need a new story…. we need a change of scenery, but that’s okay.
Change is not a sprint; nor is it a marathon. Change is a relay. It’s a relay where all handling the baton off, one to the other, and there’s no shame in not being the one to cross the finish line.
Denver: That’s really true. You know I speak to a lot of nonprofit organizations, and all of them sort of run out of steam about year number 7, and that enthusiasm and that initial thrust that got them there, they have to reimagine themselves.
Denver: They have to take a step back, either with new people or new thoughts because they can’t get to the next stage unless they do.
Yancey: Change is not a sprint; nor is it a marathon. Change is a relay. It’s a relay where all handing the baton off, one to the other, and there’s no shame in not being the one to cross the finish line.
Yancey: You know one of the things I thought so deeply about before writing this book because this is a big swing. This is like the biggest swing I know how to take in the world that we live in right now. And I had to think: How do I feel if I lay out a challenge and I lay out an idea that will not be achieved in my lifetime? I write in the book about 2050, and hopefully I live to then. I might not, but even then, it might not happen by 2050 for sure. And so how do I feel about that?
Denver: How do you feel? You’re starting a movement.
Yancey: Yes, I felt liberated. The more I thought about it, I thought: this is service. This is service to an ideal. The fact that I can accept this means that this is not about me; it means it’s about something bigger than that, and it made me feel less alone with it somehow. And I don’t know, but that idea, I’d never asked myself that question before — Am I comfortable doing this, even if I never see the end?
Denver: Well, what you’re saying also is that you’re not focused on yourself as the runner, you’re focused on the baton.
Denver: And now I’m amazed that it’s really the baton is the thing that you really need to care about. Well, let’s get back to the Bento Box. The lower left hand corner – the now me, the financial maximization, that’s something we can measure. And what you can measure gets done, but I get a little concerned about the measurement of these other three boxes. If I can draw a metaphor from the nonprofit sector, everybody in this sector hates the overhead rate. How much of the money that you give to a charity goes to program, and how much of it goes to overhead? It’s awful, it tells you nothing about the impact or the efficiency or the effectiveness of an organization, but it still holds a lot of sway because it’s a number. It’s 88 cents of every dollar, and it applies to education and to health and to poverty. So as you look at these other three boxes, they’re not going to be as easy to measure as financial maximization. There’s no scorecard. How do you think about that to be sure that they have an equal voice in decision-making?
Yancey: I thousand percent agree, and in a world where one value is measured and one is not measured, the measured will win because it will be the rational versus the emotional. And even in a company like Kickstarter, you have those moments where like this feels right, but I can’t justify it exactly other than a feeling, and that’s challenging. So, I look to… there’s an amazing book, very famous book written by Thomas Kuhn, a physicist, and it’s like a theory of scientific revolutions. This came out in the early ‘60s, and this is where the phrase paradigm shift was invented.
So Kuhn writes about how there are certain moments where existing ways of ordering society or ideas break down. There’s a paradigm shift where everyone begins to look at things in a new way. And what happens when the paradigm shifts is then you go through a period of what he calls normal science, which is all the scientists or people who do work that were not a part of… creating this new paradigm, but are just doing the day-to-day jobs. They then go through the task of trying to prove out whatever this new paradigm is, and this process takes about three decades or so. People experimenting and seeing where this paradigm works and doesn’t work and iterating, and so what I imagined for these other spaces of the Bento is that we’re working towards– a sort of a spectrum of rationality. Maybe the first step is: we can agree these spaces are real and that they matter, and that things in them are important, and that might be the first step of just like, yes we can’t put our finger on it entirely, but we can agree that like the wombat is a real thing.
So I think that it is a process that takes time, that begins with first the rational agreement on these spaces, and then my greatest hope for this book is that people really connect with this idea. If they do, I want to create an organization called the Bento Society– that I write about in the book– that will consult and help people develop their Bentos, help organizations become more in line with their bentoish choices. And we’ll use that money to give grants to researchers, to philosophers, to people who will help define new values
Denver: In theory, we will agree with this.
Yancey: We’ll agree. So I think that’s the first stage, and then from there, I think it is the normal science process of in some cases mathematically defining and measuring what sustainability means, measuring what social cohesion means, and starting to integrate those metrics and those ideals into our decisions. There are many ways that that makes me uncomfortable… like I’m not a numbers person by instinct at all. But if I truly think about the goal of ordering of society where we’re making choices that provide broad benefit, I don’t know of a better way.
So I think that it is a process that takes time, that begins with first the rational agreement on these spaces, and then my greatest hope for this book is that people really connect with this idea. If they do, I want to create an organization called the Bento Society– that I write about in the book– that will consult and help people develop their Bentos, help organizations become more in line with their bentoish choices. And we’ll use that money to give grants to researchers, to philosophers, to people who will help define new values.
And I think that this could ultimately happen by bringing together the ways organizations, companies, nonprofits — everyone is trying to measure their impact and trying to find those universal commonalities that exist… because they will be there. If you get a thousand smart people trying to solve a thousand problems in their own universes, we’re going to find some consistent things there to build off of. So to me, the ultimate success case is this book is the first brick and a new kind of institution, and that institution is pursuing the normal science of defining new values and trying to bring these other spaces into the realm of rationality and into the realm of universal decision-making.
Denver: Well that certainly is the opportunity for this current generation, and so often ideas like this can only come about and be successful when the preconditions are right. And goodness knows, the preconditions are right. It seems to be if not articulated well, on everybody’s mind, and as listening to you speak there, Yancey, I sometimes think about the paradigm shift and part of the paradigm shift may be the way we think about measurement. We think about it in a one-dimensional way, and maybe the way we think about going about measuring has to change a lot. As you talk about this movement, I see you’ve already started to do workshops. You’ve had strangers come to your house. You’re doing them online. Tell us about those.
Yancey: Well, again sort of using that feel sense way of learning the truth of things, when I first came up with the Bentoism idea. About a month later, I asked a friend of mine if she could have a bunch of people come over to her house, and could I try presenting them something. So I stood in front of a group of about 35 people and presented them Bentoism. I cannot tell you how afraid I was. Afterwards, this one guy came up…this very macho older Italian man slapped me on the back and he said “You got some balls, kid.” I was like Oh my God! That’s maybe the worst thing someone could have said to me at this moment. But yes, I wanted to try to put it in the hands of other people and just see what they did with it and see if it felt real.
Denver: What are they saying?
Yancey: People connect with it. I’ve done seven of these now. I’ve done them in my house. I’ve done two in New York this week. I’ve done a couple online, and where I lead people to the process of answering the questions in their Bentos. And the most beautiful moment as I forced people to pair up with a stranger, and they share their Bentos with each other, and they talk through a life question they’re facing. And 9 times out of 10, that is a transcendent moment for people, like hearing yourself reflected back to you from another person, saying “Hey, but you said you liked this about you!” Doesn’t that mean… it’s like you see it on their faces…there’s a moment of click, and so this idea of self-coherence comes through. So I’ve been doing that to try to learn how real is this thing, how does it work for people. So right now, I’d say there’s about 60 or 70 practicing bentoists in the world. So it’s starting small, and just this week, I launched a website bentoism.org, which recreates this workshop experience.
So you’ll click through a slide show, and there’s no forms to fill out. You have a piece of paper to write down your things. So if you want to try, you can do it, and you can also contact me there too if you want to, if you have questions about your Bento.
Denver: Really? That’s really interesting. I don’t think that people have even articulated their Bento to themselves.
Denver: And then having to say it to someone, and then have them respond to it is just completely new territory, and it’s really fascinating. Finally, Yancey, because you talked about feeling and not thinking, what do you hope people will feel after they read this book?
Yancey: I wrote this book wanting to create a feeling, and I wanted people to walk away feeling like the world is not as solid as they think, and that our ability to affect change in this world, we underrate that, and that there’s a different way to see the world. Our way of seeing right now is too limited, but our potentials and expanding that, and whether Bentoism is the phrase that is most important in communicating… I’m much less concerned with than the idea that our self-interest in the spectrum of value is bigger than we currently acknowledge. I think this is something we know in our hearts and our souls, but we struggle to articulate. So I hope this is the moment when that starts to change.
Denver: It’s the journey of your life. This is what it has all led up to. Well, Yancey Strickler, former CEO of Kickstarter and author of This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto For A More Generous World. I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Give us that website again and what else they can do, in addition to buying the book, and I urge them to read it – I have – to learn more about Bentoism.
Yancey: Bentoism.org. You can go there. You can also find me at ystrickler.com. There’s a contact button just goes right to me. So yeah, reach out.
Denver: Well, I know you’ve really started a movement, Yancey, when I see Bentoism up on Wiki.
Yancey: Yes. Exactly.
Denver: That’s our measurement tool.
Yancey: Great point.
Denver: Thanks, Yancey. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Yancey: Thanks so much.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of the Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.